Chris Rose firstname.lastname@example.org 1 July 2016
Out of disruption comes change, out of chaos comes opportunity. In the UK, thanks to the narrow 52:48 pro-Brexit vote at the EU referendum of 23 June, we have both. Everything has changed and NGOs need to react to that.
The instinct of British voluntary sector or civil society groups is to ‘stay out’ of politics, and their reflex is to hunker down, wait for things to blow over and make friends with whoever ends up running the country when normal service is resumed. Usually this would be a good strategy but not now.
This time they should help those young, positive, forward thinking and optimistic young people who voted to Remain, to take the opportunity to change Britain for the better. If they do not, the NGOs themselves risk becoming increasingly irrelevant.
picture: Olly Wainwright
The Brexit referendum results from a tragic comedy of errors, brought about by long, slow separation of politics from the people, and short-term political miscalculations.
The unexpected Brexit result shocked the waiting audience because it went against all expectations, including those of most who voted to Leave and the leaders of the Leave campaign itself.
As soon as the curtain lifted on what should have been the Final Act on 24 June, the chief actors tumbled fighting onto the stage. The Prime Minister committed political suicide, principal characters got assassinated, the two main Political Parties at once descended into chaos, and what should have been minor characters now strut and swagger in the limelight.
The critics are dumbfounded. Living in Britain right now means living with a new political earthquake every day. So much so that pundits and commentators are almost lost for words. I fear we may soon face a national shortage of political metaphors.
And now the audience has discovered that the premise of the whole story may be false: the choice they were asked to make may be impossible to implement. It’s not over. Some want their money back but those who promoted the play claim that the box office is closed. Angry and dismayed, the audience has spilled out into the streets, fearful for homes, their children, their jobs, future and country. Nobody knows how it will end. A new chapter is needed and if civil society organisations take no part in that, they may find the new story has no happy ending.
The Story So Far
Here’s the plot of the tragicomedy as described in a much shared Facebook post by Benjamin Timothy Blaine a few days ago
So, let me get this straight… the leader of the opposition campaigned to stay but secretly wanted to leave, so his party held a non-binding vote to shame him into resigning so someone else could lead the campaign to ignore the result of the non-binding referendum which many people now think was just angry people trying to shame politicians into seeing they’d all done nothing to help them.
Meanwhile, the man who campaigned to leave because he hoped losing would help him win the leadership of his party, accidentally won and ruined any chance of leading because the man who thought he couldn’t lose, did – but resigned before actually doing the thing the vote had been about. The man who’d always thought he’d lead next, campaigned so badly that everyone thought he was lying when he said the economy would crash – and he was, but it did, but he’s not resigned, but, like the man who lost and the man who won, also now can’t become leader. Which means the woman who quietly campaigned to stay but always said she wanted to leave is likely to become leader instead.
Which means she holds the same view as the leader of the opposition but for opposite reasons, but her party’s view of this view is the opposite of the opposition’s. And the opposition aren’t yet opposing anything because the leader isn’t listening to his party, who aren’t listening to the country, who aren’t listening to experts or possibly paying that much attention at all. However, none of their opponents actually want to be the one to do the thing that the vote was about, so there’s not yet anything actually on the table to oppose anyway. And if no one ever does do the thing that most people asked them to do, it will be undemocratic and if any one ever does do it, it will be awful.
Read Vox magazine’s useful explanation of what this actually means here .
The Brexit vote came about because of short term political miscalculation. The reason a referendum was called at all, and the reactions to it, is a far longer backstory of gradual decay and hollowing out of British politics in the widest sense.
For generations, Britain’s formal political connections between people, Parliament, Government and governance (running the country and getting stuff done), have thinned and frayed. The old machinery of local, regional and national political representation and delivery is still there but short-term political advantage has been to do less, while maintaining a pretence that you are in fact in control of outcomes, using electoral promises and attempting subsequent command of the media space. The military, the National Health Service and so far the police, mostly remain directly accountable along the old lines but much else that matters, such as basic services, transport, infrastructure and education has, so far as possible, been delegated to the market. Consequently there has been less and less agency through voting.
Participation in formal politics has dwindled but the edifice has survived so long as enough people felt life was getting better, could get better or they were secure in feeling it would get no worse. This reflected the progressive shift from a Settler-dominated society, in which political allegiances were ‘tribal’ and the public broadly respectful of conventional authority, to one in which Settlers were a minority (now 24%), and most national political competition was for the ‘aspirational’ Prospector vote. Since the 2008 financial crisis but going back much further to the crushing of the Trade Unions by Margaret Thatcher and the technological and lifestyle changes of the 1960s, many Settlers have felt themselves increasingly ‘adrift’, ignored by most politicians, left-behind by a changing world and without political leaders who spoke for them. Enter UKIP, with a radical simple sounding solution, of leaving the EU.
The same values-shift and polarisation process has taken place in other European countries (eg Germany, France and Italy) but Britain was particularly ill-prepared to maintain a sense of cohesion and community. In common with the US it has a socially dysfunctional first-past-the-post political system which encourages adversarial polarisation on every issue, and a political class dominated by Labour and Conservative politicians schooled in a perpetual struggle to take power from one another while marginalising the huge parts of society who were politically too widely distributed to elect many MPs (eg the Liberal Democrats, Greens, UKIP) because we have no national Proportional Representation. Except of course in European Elections which few in England take part in.
So for generations, many people who wanted reform and change (mainly Pioneers, now 38%) put their efforts into setting up or supporting NGOs or Non-Governmental Organisations: a huge part of civil society. By ‘getting stuff done’ through campaigns to influence policy they became a form of ‘people’s politics’, filling a gap where the public interest was not met through the market or formal politics. They have even worked to influence business and with business to by-pass politics altogether and create outcomes in forms of unpolitics or consumer politics.
But that is a very hit and miss and incomplete process. The charity and voluntary sector has grown big enough to be hard to completely ignore but remained weak enough to not change major outcomes where the main political parties are opposed, on sustainability for instance. Charities lack the resources to replace the state, and campaigns, whether by Greenpeace, health charities promoting particular medical needs or 38 Degrees, often only pick off the cases where public attention can be focused for long enough to make politicians look ‘out of step’ with opinion.
Britain also lacks the consensus-seeking mechanisms which involve politicians, business, labour and civil society which are still quite common in Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands. The social connections between different classes, values groups, regions and interest groups are threadbare.
Normal political elections in Britain do not offer a way to change these arrangements but the Brexit referendum pulled a thread which activated and divided society.
Britain in Shock
Right now Britain is in shock. It faces many developments that people who voted Leave or Remain might consider disastrous, and which few of them seriously considered before the referendum.
So profound is the turmoil that developments which would normally rank as national political crises in themselves, go almost un-discussed. For instance the Scottish National Party wants a new referendum on independence and ‘Republican’ politicians in Northern Ireland talk of merging with the Irish Republic, which if Britain leaves the EU will be across a ‘hard’ land border, undoing the work of successive Irish and UK governments which have toiled for decades to make it irrelevant as possible.
Meanwhile media attention focusses on the entertaining mass dog-fights that have broken out in both the two main political parties. Labour and Conservatives are both pulling themselves apart through internal leadership struggles. Boris Johnson, face of the ‘Leave’ campaign victorious in the referendum, emerged as front runner to replace Prime Minister David Cameron, only to be politically assassinated by Michael Gove, his running mate, days later. The same day, Teresa May took over as Conservative party front runner to be Prime Minister. She announced she would abandon one of the main planks of economic austerity insisted upon by George Osborne: to achieving a budget surplus by the end of the Parliament. Normally this would make headlines but it was relegated to an aside.
In Labour, there is a life and death struggle between the MPs, who are broadly aligned to the Labour voters, and the slew of new Members who support the ‘hard left’ leader Jeremy Corbyn, an ethical warrior with little popular touch who has proved himself limited in Westminster. Corbyn was effectively elected by accident when the party changed its rules and was colonised by left wing activists, who do not care if they are of touch with potential voters because they are on a ‘long march’ to socialism.
Meanwhile predominantly young and ‘non-political’ people who voted ‘Remain’ in the referendum have taken to the streets to protest in favour of the EU. This has simply never happened before in the UK. They look to me like the mostly young, educated Prospectors and Pioneers which Ashcroft polling and CDSM surveys suggest will have voted to Remain.
Government itself is in limbo: major and supposedly critical infrastructure decisions such as on a new or extended London Airport are simply being kicked into the distant long grass. Sterling has dropped in value. Big Business is furious and demanding continued access to the Single European Market, which the Leave campaign said could be accomplished along with immigration controls but EU politicians now say is impossible. Britain will lose the ‘Financial Passport’ if Brexit is implemented and as a result banks plan to transfer jobs to Europe and the European banking Authority will leave London. A range of business investments and property deals are being frozen. Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England forsees a cut in interest rates below the record low of 0.5%.
Most of the people voting to ‘Leave’ thought the outcome would be to remain (ie it was a safe ‘protest vote’) and it’s widely thought that the leaders of the Leave campaign expected to lose but it would boost their chances of taking over from their party colleague David Cameron, as Prime Minister. In other words it was a cock-up.
And that’s just the start of it.
Why It’s Not Over
The first thing campaigners need to realise if they don’t already is that it’s not over, for a number of reasons.
- Legal Obstacles to Brexit
There was a Brexit vote but it’s quite possible the UK will not invoke Article 50 (nothing to do with Area 51 but the so far untested mechanism for a country to exit the EU). The referendum is not legally binding but merely a sort of official opinion poll. David Cameron said he was bound by it as Prime Minister but that was a political statement not a legal obligation, and he then passed the decision to his successor. A Cambridge Professor of International Law and the UK Constitutional Law Association both argue that whether to invoke Article 50 and on what terms must involve a debate in Parliament. Before Brexit can be triggered, it is argued that Parliament must repeal the 1972 European Communities Act
These legal points could create grounds for a challenge in the Courts (a Judicial Review) if any attempt is made to invoke Article 50 without action by Parliament. Front runner Teresa May currently says this will not be until December 2016 and that negotiations with the EU could take ‘several years’.
- Political Resistance to Brexit
David Lammy MP has called for Parliament to vote down Brexit. In the UK which has a representative democracy, Parliament is sovereign, not referenda. Pro-European Conservative Peer Lord Heseltine has pointed out that “There is a majority of something like 350 in the House of Commons broadly in favour of the European relationship”.
Labour MP Geraint Davies has filed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons making a similar call. His bid says “UK citizens must agree on the terms of leaving the EU and, if not satisfied, be given the opportunity to opt for the UK to remain an EU member”.
The Liberal Democrats have declared they will run at the next General Election on a ticket of re-entering the EU, if Brexit takes place. The Greens have proposed an alliance with the SNP and others. So far these are merely straws in the wind and Labour, the theoretical but non-functioning Official Opposition, has played no part but in the next months, anything could happen.
- Public Opinion
Although the new Conservative government will no doubt make strenuous efforts to ‘manage’ public opinion and make it seem like Brexit is inevitable, if there is sufficient opposition and in particular if some of those who voted Leave are shown to now wish they had not voted Leave, this position may become untenable.
It is already claimed on the basis of a Survation poll in the Mail on Sunday that over a million people ‘regret’ having voted Leave. It would only take 2 or 3% of those who voted Leave to decide it should have been Remain for the non-binding Brexit referendum result to lose its political credibility.
A steady stream of such reports started immediately after the result, such as one who tweeted “personally voted leave believing these lies and I regret it more than anything, I feel genuinely robbed of my vote”.
Before the referendum leading Brexiteer Nigel Farage said that a 48%:52% result against leaving would not be the end of the matter, it would be “unfinished business”. Likewise on 27 June Boris Johnson said that the 52% :48% result in favour of Leave was “not entirely overwhelming”, which is one reason why Leavers doubted that he would ever see it through.
Whereas both the Leave and Remain camps seem to have had no real plans for what would happen in the event of a Leave result (not least as they were internally divided), the Swiss Bank Credit Suisse produced this analysis:
Note the box ‘swing in public opinion due to uncertainty, recession and austerity’. Factors which could lead to such as swing in opinion in the short term (this year before any chance to invoke Article 50) include:
- Housing: if house prices fall or even stagnate, this could cause a lot of concern in the UK which is a society much more fixated on house-owning than most of Europe, and where house buying is a major driver of the economy
- Fuel: truckers and drivers have in the past staged direct action protests when faced with fuel price hikes, and the cost of oil is sensitive to sterling falling against the dollar
- Jobs: if existing jobs in banking or other sectors are moved to Europe
- Investment: freezes by companies or deferral or cancellation of high profile public projects such as in transport or energy, some of which face loss of EU funding
- Passports and pet passports, foreign homes etc: if the press starts looking for examples which directly affect their readers, they will come up with real life examples such as the need for citizens to buy a new passport , and maybe having to put their pets into quarantine if travelling to and from the EU, and consequences for the many more affluent Britions who have bought homes abroad in the EU or now live there. Some Daily Mail readers have already noticed this.
- The start of any steps towards legal obstacles to Brexit such as in Scotland
Unarguable impacts will count for much more than the forecasts and risk-of claims made by the Remain camp in the referendum campaign.
If there is sufficient public disquiet at either the consequences of a possible Brexit or the way in which the Leave campaign was run, or both, the Government might have to call a General Election to get a mandate to invoke Article 50.
It is notable that Boris Johnson (now irrelevant), David Cameron (resigned) and Teresa May (currently thought to be front runner as new Conservative Prime Minister and a past Remain campaigner) have all ruled out a second referendum and May has ruled out a General Election until 2020. (The UK now has fixed term elections so a General Election can’t happen unless the Government calls it). The main reason for this may be that they know the Conservative Party would split over the issue, which might result in it losing power. Another factor may be that they fear a legal challenge on Article 50.
The definitive nature of their denials of a second referendum may reflect anxiety rather than well-founded confidence. A second referendum cannot be ruled out.
On 29 June a petition to Parliament (which now requires a debate to take place in Parliament) calling for a second referendum to be held if the first did not reach 60% based on a turnout less than 75%, passed the 4 million mark. By 1 July it received another 79,800 signatures but it was earlier hit by the revelation that someone had encouraged tens of thousands of signatures from outside the UK, and officials had to remove 77,000 signatures as invalid. Even so it is the largest such petition in British history.
In addition, the public may increasingly realise that they were lied to by the Leave campaign. For example broken promises on the £350m a week for the NHS, over reducing immigration and over business continuing to enjoy access to the Single European Market.
Finally, the people who almost certainly voted Remain, particularly the younger, more professional, hopeful, forward looking, optimistic, more-than-average educated Pioneers and Prospectors, may organise themselves to sustain some sort of Remain campaign. This above all is what the Conservative government will hope does not happen. This is a complete unknown because many of these people have never been politically active before. Most of them have no ‘baggage’ or party allegiances and being largely unknown, do not appear in conventional political calculations or on TV. But these people represent Britain’s future. They could be a potent force.
In theory there are no negotiations until Article 50 is invoked and no informal negotiations. In practice the informal negotiations are already going on, for example in public statements from EU leaders and British politicians, and there will be a host of private informal informals.
This has to happen not least because Big Business (and small businesses) are hungry for some sort of certainty about the terms of possible Brexit, and they less they get that, the more likely some are to pull out of the UK. As such talks go on and the rumour mills grind into action, the possible downsides of Brexit will become more apparent and feel more real. This too will affect public opinion.
Let’s for moment imagine that some campaigners decided to throw in their lot with a campaign to stop Brexit from happening, either as individuals with skills or with the resources of organisations behind them. What would face them ?
The main thing they could do in the short term is to keep alive the prospect of Remaining by showing that those who voted Remain have not given up and some of those who voted Leave at least regret it and wish they’d voted to Remain. In short that people are angry that they were lied to and misled and therefore want the whole thing re-thought by politicians. There are many ways that could then play out.
Doing this requires generating visible events and activities to sustain momentum.
The main hope of the Conservative Government is that interest in the whole subject tails off as the supply of political excitement dwindles and summer arrives. Holidays are the principal enemy of the campaigners in the short term: once Parliament goes into recess and the various players retire ‘to the country’ or go abroad on holiday, the normal expectation is that politics goes into summer hibernation. That may not happen this year thanks to the political leadership elections and if the EU Remainers were to manage to be present at summer events, even that might be enough to prevent it.
Why NGOs Should Get Involved
Britain’s NGOs range from tiny voluntary groups with no staff to the National Trust, the largest landowner in the country. In the middle are many large politically (small p) active players such as green groups like the RSPB, WWF, Wildlife Trusts, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth who all (if reluctantly in some cases) came out for remaining in the EU on grounds of evidence that it would be better for the environment. These are the sorts of groups which have the capacity to help make sure that the unfinished business remains unfinished.
The environment groups tried, unsuccessfully for the most part, to get environment made part of the referendum campaign. Craig Bennett of Friends of the Earth has pointed out that one upside of this failure is that at least it was not actively rejected by either camp. But other NGOs have seen their priorities much more directly included in the campaign, such as all the health charities whose work is closely tied to the NHS. They and the country were promised £350m more a week which has now been airbrushed from the Brexit package. That would take an awful lot of fundraising effort to replace.
On grounds of pursuing their objectives, their mission and raison d’etre, whether charities or not, such groups have a prima facie case for now getting involved in the public discussion. So far most of them have stayed silent, heads down.
The NGOs also have a much bigger reason to abandon their usual position of wait-and-see. The referendum earthquake is not just party political but envelops the whole of society, and may have repercussions that spread far outside the UK. As I argue above, British civil society has grown into something of a political vacuum caused by generations of dislocation between formal politics and the people and now the façade which hid that fact has come crashing down.
Until now these groups had many pragmatic reasons to ignore this unhappy state of affairs, leaving it to those who decided to involve themselves in politics. But now they owe it to the younger people who have been betrayed by the referendum, on top of the inter-generational theft of resources they have suffered by many of their parents and grandparents voting for lower taxes while insisting on generous pensions and maintenance of state services.
The First and Second Political Betrayal of the People
In the very long run up to the Brexit referendum many of Britain’s most dependent people were effectively forgotten and taken for granted by the political system. They felt betrayed and many took their revenge in a protest that turned out to have an instrumental effect. That was the first political betrayal. Now we have a second betrayal but it most affects our young, our most able, those who had most to look forward to and those who often are already paying in more than they get out. These people will carry the burden not just of making the economy work but of making our society work.
One way or another they deserve the help of those who have the machinery they lack, and that includes the campaign groups.
To my mind that is the clear moral and ethical case for NGOs to intervene. They are actors who can and do reach across society better than the formal political parties. They can make a difference to the outcome, whatever form it takes, and may find they have allies in some businesses.
So NGOs should abandon the pretence that they are not political actors just because they are not in formal politics. This is a moment of opportunity to make real changes in our society, without parallel since the end of World War Two.
They should not abandon the optimistic, hopeful young just because it is comfortable to do so, or because they fear upsetting those who have been used to wielding power in the old order.
If they do not, if they stand by and let the optimistic young people who saw a future with Europe simply go back to their work, to their studies and to their families disappointed and despondent, then they also stand to lose. Many of the NGOs already have ageing supporter bases. They are likely to find that other players take their place. Becoming invisible and not being there in the hour of need, is a step towards becoming irrelevant.